Daniel Passarella – El Gran Capitán

To be considered an iconic presence at any club is, by definition, a rare distinction. To do so at one of the world’s leading clubs is another step or three beyond that. It requires not only a dedication to the club and its fans, a longevity and history of success in a number of roles, but also that quintessential affinity with what the club represents. Few achieve such hallowed status. Without fear of contradiction however, it’s safe to say that Daniel Passarella has such a presence at River Plate. 

The player who would become known as “El Gran Capitán” and spend ten years wearing River Plate’s famous colours, another six as coach and then serve as president of the club, as well as being a World Cup winning captain and coach of the national team, was born in the Buenos Aires province of Chacabuco on 25 May 1973. His footballing career began with Club Atlético Sarmiento, then in the third-tier of the Argentine league structure. Given how his future would pan out, it’s strange to note that Passarella’s family was very much Boca-orientated and, legend has it, he once assured his Boca supporting grandmother that he would be part of a team that would destroy Las Gallinas –a nickname meaning ‘hens’ and often used as a derogatory term for River Plate. Nevertheless, in 1974, he left Club Atlético Sarmiento, and entered the Estadio Monumental as a River Plate player, beginning an association that would span four decades and see him achieve legendary status.

Passarella’s talent had been spotted by River’s network of scouts and brought to the attention of the then coach Néstor Rossi. Suitably impressed by both his organised and no-holds-barred defending, plus an ability to drive forward from the back and score, Rossi persuaded the young Passarella to put aside youthful enmities and join River. The blandishments of the coach endured, and a 20-year-old Passarella crossed the Rubicon. As if to underscore the break with previously held emotional attachments, his debut in a pre-season game would be against none other than Boca Juniors. It’s not known what his grandmother thought of the occasion.

Although making his league debut that same season, Passarella would quickly become a regular starter, and begin the climb to greatness, when River’s record goalscorer, Ángel Labruna replaced Rossi for the following season. With Passarella inserted into the spine of the team, along with signings brought in by the new coach, the club was set for a golden period. River had last won the Metropolitano title in 1957, the year after Passarella had been born. It had been the club’s 13th and, some considered, ill-fated title, but all of that was about to change. Playing from centre- back, Passarella would appear in 29 league games that term, scoring an impressive nine goals, as River secured the title, four points clear of Huracán, with Boca a point further back. Although far from being the league’s top scorers, River’s defensive efficiency with Passarella at the heart of things returned the best record, conceding just 38 times, and losing a mere six of the 38 fixtures. The stage was set.

Despite standing a mere 1.73metres, much as with so many other great defenders of the era, he played as if he was two metres tall. Short in stature, but still a giant in the air, he seemed to defy the limits imposed by his short frame, consistently dominating forwards despite conceding height to them. Professional to the core, he would deploy all legitimate means to prevent his team conceding, and never shirk from indulging in the darker arts of the game if the situation required such things.

Strong and dominant with pace aplenty, his determined attitude saw him rarely lose out in the intensely physical battles of the Argentine league. As if that were not sufficient upon which to build a reputation however, his early ability to score goals would hardly diminish as his career progressed. Across his two terms with the club, developing a polished technique from the penalty spot and dead ball scenarios, he would score 99 league goals for River across 298 games. An average better than a goal every three games is a decent return for many strikers, but here was the most consummate of defenders offering up the most productive of bonuses.  His talent received due reward when he was named Argentina’s Footballer of the Year in 1976. He was still only 23 years old.

Very much in the way of Passarella, River were elbowing their way back towards the top table of Argentine domestic football and when the squad for the home World Cup in 1978 was announced, alongside club mates Ubaldo Fillol, Roberto Perfumo, Reinaldo Merlo and Leopoldo Luque, the name of Daniel Passarella was at the top of the list, with the captain of River Plate also granted the honour of leading the national team. His debut had come during a 1-0 victory over the Soviet Union in a friendly in Kiev on March 20, 1976, and a little over two years later, on 25 June 1978, in River’s own Estadio Monumental, more than 70,000 celebrating Argentines saw Passarella become the first Argentine to list the World Cup.

The trophy was handed to Passarella by General Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the military junta ruling the country. The regime was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the years of harsh military repression, and the Argentine captain would later lament that, “If I’d known then what was happening, I wouldn’t have played at all.” Cynically perhaps, some would argue that it’s easy to say that in retrospect, but sitting in the comfort of a democratically run country, such superior opinions can come too easily.

Domestic success continued.  The Nacional title was won in 1975, 1979 and 1981, along with other Metropolitano successes in 1977, 1979 and 1980. The goals also continued to flow. In 1976, he scored a staggering 24 goals in just 35 league games. Despite River’s success and playing for one of the country’s top teams, it was still a phenomenal scoring record for a defender. Despite his goals, frustratingly, it was Boca who picked up both the Nacional and Metropolitano titles that term.

By the time of the 1982 World Cup, Passarella was a prime target for the top clubs of Serie A and after Argentina were eliminated from the tournament, Fiorentina moved in with a bid to take the River Plate legend to Tuscany. He would be joined by Brazilian legend and skipper Sócrates, although reports suggest that the pair were anything but close. Given the traditional rivalry between the national teams of Brazil and Argentina, it’s perhaps little surprise that the captains of each of those sides were hardly the best of friends.

Across the next four seasons, Passarella would average 35 games a season with I Viola, scoring first three, then eight, followed by nine and, in his final term there, 15 goals. Although never good enough to challenge for the Scudetto in any consistent way, Fiorentina did qualify for UEFA Cup competition in 1983-84 and 1985-86. In the latter of those seasons, his last with the club, Passarella’s return of 15 goals is made even more remarkable by the fact that the total was more than half of the club’s entire haul of league goals. He would leave Tuscany after the 1986 World Cup, having played 109 games for Fiorentina.

Although a triumph for his country, the 1986 World Cup constituted a personal disappointment for Passarella. Chosen for the squad, a bout of enterocolitis saw him miss the tournament’s action. He was replaced by José Luis Brown who scored the opening goal in the World Cup Final. After the tournament, rumours broke out of a rift between Passarella and Diego Maradona. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, coach Carlos Bilardo sided with his star player and Passarella felt that the two combined to keep him out of the action.

Whatever the truth of that, or otherwise, it illustrated the undiminished burning ambition of Passarella to play, and win, at the highest level of the game. Despite not kicking a ball in the tournament, his presence in the squad ensured him of the exclusive honour of being the only Argentine to feature in both of his country’s World Cup victories. As with 1982, the end of the World Cup saw another move, and Passarella left Tuscany journeying north to Lombardy, and joining I Nerazzurri of Internazionale.

His first term at the San Siro saw Inter hit a third-place finish in Serie A, a point behind runners-up Juventus and four astray of the champions, a Diego Maradona inspired Napoli. The rivalry between the two Argentines, added to by the discomfort of relations at the 1986 World Cup, would only have made losing out to his compatriot’s club even more bitter for the defender with the burning desire to win. Nineteen eighty-six, also saw Passarella play his last game for Argentina, after 70 caps and a highly impressive 22 goals. It’s a goal ratio better than that of Spain’s Fernando Torres! The following season would see Inter trail off into fifth place and despite Passarella delivering his customary goals there seemed little chance of the club enjoying league success, as stadium-sharing rivals AC Milan took on the mantle of Italy’s top club.

Passarella was now 35 and with the remaining years of his career slipping away, he sought a way home, returning to Buenos Aries and the Estadio Monumental. He would play just one further season with River, finishing a disappointing fifth in the league, some 17 points adrift of champions, Independiente. In December 1989 though, another chapter in the career of Daniel Passarella would open when former team-mate, and now River Plate coach, Reinaldo Merlo resigned his post. With their legendary captain and national hero now back home, there was an irresistible clamour for Passarella to inherit the job, and El Gran Capitán swapped the white shirt with the red sash for a tracksuit and position on the bench. If Passarella’s ascent to the realms of playing for River had brought success to the club, his time sitting in the coach’s dugout would hardly suffer by comparison.

The 1989-90 Primera División season had hardly been an encouraging one for River, hence Merlo’s departure. When Passarella assumed charge of the team’s affairs, the club were languishing, comfortably adrift of table-topping Independiente. By the time the last game had been played though, River had eaten away at the deficit and built a seven-point cushion to the club from Avellaneda. River had won the title and conceded a miserly 20 goals in the 38-game league programme. Passarella organised his team to play in the same way he had when wearing the shirt. Cold-eyed and determined, win at all costs and tolerate nothing less than success. It was immensely successful and as the Argentine league system was split into two halves, the club secured two more titles. River Plate was now on an upward trajectory, but Passarella wouldn’t be there to enjoy the full fruits of his labours. A string of other coaches would reap the benefit as the club added a further three Aperturas and four Clausura titles. Somewhat ironically, the success that he helped to create that meant that, after he left the national team four years later, an immediate return to River was hardly possible.

The 1994 World Cup was staged in the USA and, much as with the fate of Merlo at River Plate, the downfall of another hero would herald a call for Passarella. Argentina were eliminated by Romania and a failed drugs test also brought the international career of Diego Maradona to an end. Coach Alfie Basilo was moved out and when the question was asked as to who should be invited to take over as coach of the La Albiceleste, there were few dissenting voice from the acclaim for it to be former World Cup winning skipper and the man at the heart of River Plate’s revival, Daniel Passarella.

His first game in charge saw an upturn in fortunes with a 3-0 victory over Chile, and Passarella’s disciplinarian and demanding ethos brought similar results to those enjoyed at the Estadio Monumental. In 1995, Argentina reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America held in Uruguay, before being unluckily eliminated by Brazil on penalties, following a 2-2 draw. The following year, he guided the team to the Olympic Final, but lost 3-2 to Nigeria after twice being in front, and Argentina had to settle for silver medals.

In February 1997 Passarella’s disciplinary approach both off the field – no long hair, and on the field – adherence to positions led Fernando Redondo to announce that he would never play for the country again whilst Passarella was coach. It’s easy, of  course, to find a coach’s approach unacceptable when the results are falling just short, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether, had the Brazil and Nigeria results gone the other way – which they so easily could have done – would Redondo have been happy to visit the barbers and stick to his allotted role in the team? Passarella had little time for regret anyway, declaring after Redondo’s announcement that, “If I select a player who thinks he’s doing the team a favour by joining us, then I not only irritate myself but my players, as well.”

Five months later, Argentina again fell at the last eight stage of the Copa America, this time, somewhat embarrassingly to Bolivia, although Passarella had selected a number of back up players. There was redemption later in the year, as qualification was achieved for the 1998 World Cup to be held in France. The following April, Passarella finally managed a victory over Brazil after 20 years of trying, returning to Argentina with a 0-1 win gained at the Maracana. It’s the sort of victory that adds lustre to the reputation of any coach. Two months later, Argentina were eliminated from the World Cup by Holland, and Passarella resigned.

At the time, River were still enjoying success and, had there been any thoughts of returning to coach the club he had served for so many years, they had to be shelved. Instead, he took up the job of coaching Uruguay in 1999, but only stayed there briefly, leaving after a mixed bag of World Cup qualifying results early in 2001, and frustration over not being able to gain the release of players from Uruguayan clubs. In November, he returned to Italy and took over at Parma, but it was both a disastrous, and mercifully short tenure. Five games and five defeats led to him getting the sack before Santa Claus had even thought about setting to work on his. Two years in Mexico with Monterrey brought a Mexican league title before a short stay in Brazil coaching Corinthians. As with Parma however, the results were poor and the sack followed in a matter of a few months, before the almost inevitable return to River.

On 9 January 2006, he returned to the Estadio Monumental, once again replacing Reinaldo Merlo. His earlier success however was not easy to repeat and on 15 November of the following year, he resigned after losing a semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana to local rivals, but always seen as an inferior club, Arsenal de Sarandí. The following summer there was wide expectation that Passarella would return to Monterrey after his success there, but the job went to Diego Alonso, and the former River player and coach had eyes on a bigger prize.

With River enduring a financial crisis and results sliding Passarella stood for election as president of the club, and swept to victory, comfortably unseating José María Aguilar in 2009. Success would not follow this appointment though. River’s on-field fortunes continued to decline, and the club endured the previously unthinkable humiliation of relegation to the Primera B Nacional. The pain of relegation was clear in Passarella’s words. “I never imagined that we would play in the Second Division. But the only person responsible is José María Aguilar,” he explained in an interview with ESPN Rivadavia radio. “My glorious and beloved River Plate … This is the second greatest pain of my life,” he declared, offering an emotional reference to the death of one of his sons in 1995. Unsurprisingly, coach Juan José López was hastily ushered out of the door and replaced by Leonardo Ponzio, who guided the club back to the top tier at the first attempt in 2012-13.

At first, it looked as if the Passarella magic had retained its power. After taking over a club in decline, things were heading in the right direction again, but a storm was brewing. In 2013, a financial investigation suggested an involvement in irregularities and alleged illegal payments.  With River almost 400million pesos in debt and running at a substantial loss, the buck stopped with the president, and Passarella declined to stand for re-election. Too many, it seemed a sad end to his association with the club, but perhaps doing whatever it took to achieve success at River was just something that Daniel Passarella was destined to do.

Did the last few years of Passarella’s association with River Plate diminish his standing with the club’s fans. It hardly seems likely. Football fans can forgive many sins, especially those that appear to have been committed in the best interests of the club, no matter the folly of them. The enduring image of the man who gave so much to the club instead will surely be that of the player and coach who delivered success. The legacy of El Gran Capitán.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ – ‘River Plate’ magazine).

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